Here’s why you should probably switch to an eco-friendly laundry detergent
It’s a place where toxins have no sway
Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
In recent years, dozens of new eco-friendly laundry products have emerged, all of them touting greener, more eco-friendly options when it comes to keeping your clothing and linens clean and free of harsh chemicals and plastic. But, what does eco-friendly laundry detergent even mean?
On the one hand, it’s anything that’s free of toxic chemicals, dyes, fragrances, and microplastics, and on the other, it also has to do with the way the detergent is packaged.
If you want to make smart choices that minimize your impact on the environment, we can help break it all down for you.
Let’s look first at what laundry detergent is
How is it that you can put a stained, stinky shirt into the washing machine and it comes out smelling fresh, with no signs of dirt on it? The short answer is surfactants.
The job of surfactants is, essentially, to loosen the bonds between dirt and your clothing, which is why stains tend to rinse out of fabrics that have been agitated in detergent and water. Almost every laundry detergent these days contains surfactants, but to make a cleaner, greener choice, it's important to identify those that are petroleum-based, and those that are plant-based.
Plant-based detergent ingredients are just that: sourced from plants. The surfactants used in this type of detergent can include coconut oil, palm and palm kernel oil, or even olive oil, and are typically biodegradable, which means they can be broken down into harmless products by microorganisms.
Synthetic surfactants derived from petroleum became popular during World War II and, while they offer powerful cleaning benefits, it comes at greater environmental cost than their plant-based counterparts. They tend to contain phosphates, which are known to harm wildlife and pollute waterways, they require a significant amount of oil for their production, and they can be slow to biodegrade, if they do at all.
Another ingredient commonly found in petroleum-based detergents are microplastics, a term referring to particles of plastic that are under 5 mm across. Microplastics, including microbeads, have actually been phased out of cosmetics manufacturing thanks to the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which prohibits the manufacturing of cosmetics containing plastic microbeads. Unfortunately, there is no such regulation in place for microbeads in industrial use like detergents. As a result, laundry pods—which are often made of a dissolvable plastic called polyvinyl alcohol (PVA)—and many of the most popular liquid detergents, send millions of microbeads into our waterway with every load, posing a hazard not just for marine life but potentially for the humans that eventually consume it.
With so many harmful chemicals in something that runs through our water, it makes sense to consider some healthier, more environmentally friendly alternatives.
Choosing an eco-friendly laundry detergent
You should know that there is no federal standard for calling laundry detergents “green,” “eco-friendly,” or “environmentally safe,” but there are a few things to look for on the label to make an environmentally conscious choice.
As a first step, look for the EPA’s Safer Choice label on the detergent’s packaging. This label denotes that the detergent is made with ingredients on the Safer Chemical Ingredients List that have been determined by a third party to be safer than traditional chemicals.
This means that these ingredients with a Safer Choice label are determined to be of low health and environmental concern. They include products like Seventh Generation Liquid Laundry Detergent Free and Clear and Arm & Hammer Clean & Simple Baby Liquid Laundry Detergent.
If you can’t find a Safer Choice label, look for brands that have a USDA Organic seal like Greenshield Organic or Rebel Green. This ensures that at least 95% of ingredients are organic, and they’re generally free from synthetic sulfates and phosphates, and tend to be biodegradable.
David Ellerby, Reviewed’s chief scientist, explains consumers should not overlook a laundry detergent’s ability to be biodegradable. “Environmental persistence of harmful chemicals is a major concern,” he says. “It's essential that ingredients are biodegradable, so at minimum they shouldn't survive passage through a wastewater treatment plant or septic system, and if they do they should rapidly break down.”
Should you always opt for powdered detergent?
The answer is, perhaps surprisingly, no. While almost all liquid detergents need to be packaged in some kind of plastic bottle, adding to the single-use plastic crisis we find ourselves in, most powdered detergents contain sodium sulfate, which is used as a filler in powdered detergents and shouldn’t be used in homes with septic tanks.
If you don’t have a septic system and prefer a powdered choice that doesn’t use any plastic, we suggest Nellie’s All-Natural Non-Toxic Washing Powder. If you opt to use a liquid, look for a plant-based version that comes in concentrated form, which means it requires less water to be produced, less fuel to be transported, and will have a lower overall carbon footprint.
Finally, one of the most cost-saving, energy-efficient changes you can make when doing laundry is washing in cold water. Look for detergents that are designated to work well in cold water—such as BioKleen Natural Cold Water Laundry Detergent—as they’re formulated to dissolve and penetrate fabrics more easily.
You’ll save energy and money by washing your dirties primarily in cold water, and it’s gentler on your clothes, which can fade or shrink when washed consistently in hot water.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.